Encryption and the Press Clause
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Almost twenty years ago, a hostile debate over whether government could regulate encryption—later named the Crypto Wars—seized the country. At the center of this debate stirred one simple question: is encryption protected speech? This issue touched all branches of government percolating from Congress, to the President, and eventually to the federal courts. In a waterfall of cases, several United States Court of Appeals appeared to reach a consensus that encryption was protected speech under the First Amendment, and with that the Crypto Wars appeared to be over, until now.
Nearly twenty years later, the Crypto Wars have returned. Following recent mass shootings, law enforcement has once again questioned the legal protection for encryption and tried to implement “backdoor” techniques to access messages sent over encrypted channels. In the case, Apple v. FBI, the agency tried to compel Apple to grant access to the iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter. The case was never decided, but the legal arguments briefed before the court were essentially the same as they were two decades prior. Apple and amici supporting the company argued that encryption was protected speech.
While these arguments remain convincing, circumstances have changed in ways that should be reflected in the legal doctrines that lawyers use. Unlike twenty years ago, today surveillance is ubiquitous, and the need for encryption is no longer felt by a seldom few. Encryption has become necessary for even the most basic exchange of information given that most Americans share “nearly every aspect of their lives—from the mundane to the intimate” over the Internet, as stated in a recent Supreme Court opinion.*
Given these developments, lawyers might consider a new justification under the Press Clause. In addition to the many doctrinal concerns that exist with protection under the Speech Clause, the Press Clause is normatively and descriptively more accurate at protecting encryption as a tool for secure communication without fear of government surveillance. This Article outlines that framework by examining the historical and theoretical transformation of the Press Clause since its inception.
* Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2490 (2014).